Tenn. officials: Confederate flag lawsuit more than a dress-code issue

Leean Tupper

Likening the case to the racial discord of the mid- to late 1950s in Anderson County, county school officials on Thursday night said this week's U.S. federal court hearing over a student's right to wear the Confederate flag symbol is being funded "by outside sources."

"Regardless of what you read there's a lot more to it than our enforcement of our dress code," John Burrell, Anderson County Board of Education chairman, said during the county school board's regular monthly meeting.

At the meeting's start, Anderson County school board members spent approximately 20 minutes in an executive session teleconference with their attorney, Arthur S. Knight III of Knoxville.

An executive session allows for the elected officials to go behind closed doors and out of the public eye to confer with their attorney.

Knight reportedly was updating the board members on the status of a federal case now under way against the Anderson County school system. The hearing is the result of a free speech lawsuit filed in 2006 by Tom DeFoe, who was then an Anderson County High School student.

DeFoe alleges school officials violated his right to free speech, due process and equal protection when they suspended him more than 40 times for wearing T-shirts and a belt buckle with the Confederate flag emblem.

DeFoe's lawsuit is challenging the county school system's quarter-century old ban on the display of the Confederate flag, as well as Malcolm X or gang-affiliation attire.

This case, Director of Schools V.L. Stonecipher said Thursday night, has made the county's school administrators think about the system's policies.

"There're no winners or losers in this case," Stonecipher explained to board members. "It just shows the importance of board policy and consistency in policy.

"I think our Code of Student Conduct is second to none," the schools' director said.

"You don't realize how things can be scrutinized and what can happen," he added.

"It's being funded by outside sources," Burrell said of the lawsuit.

According to a November 2006 story published in The Oak Ridger, DeFoe's lawsuit was filed by an attorney employed by the Black Mountain, N.C.-based Southern Legal Resource Center Inc.

"In 1956, an outsider, John Kasper, came in and created a problem," Stonecipher said, referring to the racial unrest in Clinton that resulted in the 1958 bombing of Clinton High School. "Then, in 2006, it's an outsider coming in looking for a landmark case."

Kasper was among those who opposed the court-ordered desegregation of Clinton High School in August 1956.

DeFoe's lawyers are pointing to related court rulings to argue that past racial violence at Anderson County High School, which DeFoe attended, "does not necessarily prove that the symbolic expression (of the Confederate flag) will cause substantial disruption in the future."

There was no evidence DeFoe's apparel directly led to racial incidents at Anderson County High, where one out of 1,160 students is black, or at the all-white vocational school.

But there was concern that it could raise tensions there and at another county school -- the more racially mixed Clinton High, the first school desegregated by court order in the old South in 1956.

His lawsuit is the latest in a string of cases across the South since the 1990s challenging dress codes that banned Confederate flag apparel. Most have been dismissed by judges or settled out of court.

"Getting to where we have gotten with this case is in and of itself just an incredible victory," said Van Irion, DeFoe's attorney.

"I think when you stand up like Mr. Irion did (in closing arguments) and say, 'The whole world is watching you,' I think the jury really (understood)," said Knight, the school board's attorney. "I sympathize with their plight."

The 2006 lawsuit was filed against Stonecipher, Burrell, the School Board, Anderson County High Principal Greg Deal, Merl Krull and Sid Spiva, both vocational school officials. Spiva has since retired.

Leean Tupper can be contacted at (865) 220-5501. Donna Smith of The Oak Ridger contributed to this story.